It was Monday morning. She was in the kitchen, starting to make her pies for her annual family Thanksgiving. The phone rang. It was her brother-in-law Mansour.
"What's wrong?" Why would Brian need to be brought to a hospital in Kansas City from Lawrence where he was a freshman at the University of Kansas?
"All I know is he said he was losing the feeling in his legs and arms and felt like his whole body was becoming numb. A short time could make a lot of difference. "
"Numb?" Standing there in her kitchen among her pie pans and the flour, sugar and ingredients she'd assembled for a day of baking, Kathleen listened in disbelief. She couldn't associate her lively, strong eighteen year-old son with "numb."
"The helicopter will arrive at St. Joe's around one," Mansour added. "Get Dick and meet me there."
This couldn't be happening. It was a nightmare. She would wake up. She made herself call Dick. "Brian called Mansour to say that he is ill, that he's getting numb. Mansour is getting him out of Lawrence to St. Joe's, on a helicopter? Come right home, so we can meet the helicopter at one. What could it be?" She wanted him not just to pick her up but to allay her fears.
"Have you called Amatelli?" Frank Amatelli was their GP. Fortunately he was on the staff at St. Joe's.
All the way to the hospital they tried to recall whether Brian had mentioned to them that he was sick. "He had the flu last week." Kathleen recalled the last time he had called. "Remember? He said he couldn't shake it?"
"What did he say to you when you talked to him?" Kathleen begged of Mansour. They heard Dr. Amatelli being paged.
"He said he'd had the flu for a long time--vomiting and diahrrea."
"Then Saturday he went to the KU vs.K-State football game," Kathleen interjected, "even though he felt bad." He wouldn't have missed that game. She had graduated from KU herself and knew of the ancient rivalry. "He must have sat outdoors for hours in the bitter cold."
"Saturday night he was feeling dizzy," Mansour continued, " but he stayed up for a fraternity party in his house. Then Sunday he began to feel really strange, he said. He stayed in bed all day, but didn't get any better. He couldn't keep any food down and was feverish and chilled. He thought it was the flu, but he could barely move. He wanted to call me in the middle of the night but couldn't get out of bed."
"He sleeps in an upper bunk in his dorm," Kathleen added.
"By this morning he couldn't feel his feet and his hands felt like blocks of wood, so he called me early, thank God. I told him to have some friends take him to the hospital there, and then I thought of the Lifelift-- St. Joe's just introduced it. The two hospitals arranged the transfer. He's the first Lifelift patient." Kathleen wasn’t interested in that honor.
Dr. Amatelli arrived. The helicopter had called to say they had Brian and were bringing him in. "He's unconscious."
"Unconscious?" Kathleen and Dick looked at each other in horror.
The helicopter arrived and Brian was immediately moved into an ICU room, stuck with needles and tubes, and put on monitors. Kathleen and Dick stood by the bed where their son lay there lifeless. "Brian, Brian! Wake up, Brian!" There was no movement. What was wrong with him? Had he had a stroke?
Dr. Amatelli had called in Dr. Ryan, a neurologist, who ordered a brain scan and other tests run. When he was wheeled back on a gurney, Kathleen kept a vigil by his bedside. She looked at the intravenous tubes giving him fluids, at the heart monitor, brain monitor. Every vital process was being monitored because there was no one there to tell them what was going on inside him. None of the nurses could tell them anything. There! He moved. She ran out into the hall to report a movement, a sign of life. The nurse came in, took a look, and shook her head. "It's involuntary."
"Critical," they wrote on his chart, and beside that, "Comatose." He was inert. He had no reflexes. His face twitched; his body had involuntary spasms, but there was no intelligence, no sign of understanding.
Kathleen stood beside his bed, holding his hand. She was hopeful. She remembered Frank Amatelli's instructions: "It's as if his whole outer system has shut down. We don't know what's going on inside. The neurologist says you should treat him as if he can understand everything. Talk to him. Try to wake him up."
Everyone worked on him. "Brian, it's your mother. Can you hear me?" She stroked his hand and face. He just kept twitching and working his body. "Involuntary activity." She was alarmed at the brain wave monitor. She asked Mansour. He just shook his head. "We won't know what's happened to him until he wakes up and we can see whether there's been any damage."
Finally the neurosurgeon came.
"Will he be all right? Can his body go through this without damage? And what about his mind?"
"There's no brain activity," Dr. Ryan told her.
Kathleen went out of the room to be by herself. She didn't even want to call Dick. She wanted to take in this fact. What if he woke up and was retarded. What if there was brain damage? Would he be a vegetable? Maybe it would be better if he didn't wake up. For the first time Kathleen admitted that it might be over.
Monday night Kathleen called everyone in the family, her parents, her oldest son Keith at Notre Dame, her sister who lived in Chicago, to warn them that Brian was critical. "There's no brain activity. Come home immediately." As it was Thanksgiving week, Keith had to finish some tests and then would take the same flight as his aunt into KC Wednesday morning. "He'll be awake then; I know it," Kathleen was convinced.
"Is it contagious?" It was his fraternity calling. The campus health department had been notified that a student living in a fraternity house had suddenly become ill with an unknown disease. Should the house be quarantined? She called Dr. Amatelli. It couldn't be ruled out, though he doubted it. He thought it might be meningitis.
But you think he'll wake up, don't you, Frank?" She appealed to her long time friend for reassurance.
"We can only pray."
She stayed at the hospital all day Tuesday, letting the other children take care of themselves. Gertrude, her mother in law, would come over and help with dinner. She wanted to be there when he woke up. She kept seeing signs that he was waking up. He would suddenly turn his head and she would think he was going to say something. She would summon a nurse to confirm. "Doesn't it look like he's waking up?"
His friends began calling. They were signing up volunteers for a round-the-clock prayer vigil at Visitation Church. People were volunteering to bring food to the house for the family, so she wouldn't have to worry about cooking.
She went home late that night, telling the night nurse to call if he woke up. "I expect he'll wake up in the night."
She went back in Wednesday morning . "Brian?" She looked to see if he recognized her voice. She bathed his forehead, combed his hair. She thought she detected a movement of his eyes. She called the nurse. "He's waking up!" The nurse came in, bent over him. "Brian, can you open your eyes?" Kathleen strained to see him respond. There was no movement of his eyes. "Brian?" There was no response. She sat beside his bed, holding his hand. "Why doesn't he wake up?"
The GP and the neurologist were working around the clock trying to diagnose his problem. "He doesn't have meningitis. A spinal tap ruled that out," Dr. Ryan said. "Did he take drugs?" She didn't like the way they referred to him in the past, as if his life had ended. "No, of course not." Still, he had lived at a fraternity house, they observed. He had been away from home for three months. "Nothing can be excluded," the doctor said. The drug test came out negative, as she'd known it would.
"Reyes Syndrome," she heard a new doctor say. He had been reading about it. She wanted to know about it. "It is rare. It afflicts young people," he said. "It causes permanent damage." She was looking for an explanation, but she didn't want that one, yet that became the working diagnosis.
"He might have Reyes Syndrome," she told the next person who called.
On Wednesday, the waiting room filled as Brian's friends came back for the holiday. "Let them in, to stimulate him. Bring his music," Dr. Ryan told her.
"Act natural," Kathleen told Keith and Aunt Rose.
"Hi, old buddy," Keith approached his lifeless brother.
"Hello, dearest Brian," Rose leaned over and kissed his motionless, inert face.
What had the doctors said about comas? "The shorter time it takes to go into a coma, the longer it takes him to come out," Dick volunteered.
"No, wasn't it the shorter time going in, the shorter coming out?" Kathleen contradicted. "Brian went in very quickly, so he's going to come out quickly too."
"Or was it the longer he's in, the longer it takes coming out?" Dick shook his head.
They had heard so many contradictory opinions. Dick was no help; he was as confused and helpless as she. The only thing that kept them going was the support of so many people who believed Brian would make it. It seemed like all of Kansas City was getting involved.
"An article was in the KU paper," a classmate reported. "They're killing pigeons on the roof at his frat house; they think they started the disease," she told Dick.
"I'm sure he'll come out of it," Kathleen told everyone. She admitted to her sister, "I don't know what to pray for at this point, but if he's a vegetable, we'll just go from there."
Around the Thanksgiving table at Kathleen's, the family stood, holding hands, praying for Brian--Kathleen, Dick, Keith (20), Kevin (15), Brennan (13), Malachy (10), and Mary (7), along with Grandmother and Grandfather and Aunt Rose. Kathleen couldn't accept that this was possibly how her life would be, that Brian wouldn't be with them. Even having him there as a permanent invalid would be better than this. "Dear Lord," Dick prayed, "please let Brian wake up." "And let him be normal, with no damage to his organs or his brain," Kathleen added. "Amen," they all concurred.
After dinner some friends of Brian's came by with pictures of Brian taken in recent weeks at a party. "We thought Kathleen and Dick might like to have these last pictures of Brian." one said. "Brian wouldn't miss a party," another of his friends said, complimenting him.
Kathleen looked at the pictures. She hadn't seen Brian for about a month before this happened. His life at college was so frantic; he had no time to drive home on the weekends. She stared at the pictures of him, smiling in groups. His eyes were hollow and glittering; his cheeks looked sunken in. He looked gaunt, obviously run down, even before the flu. He looks like a ghost, she thought. His head looked like a skeleton.
She suddenly felt the power of student life to overwhelm the physical reserves of even a strong young man. She could imagine him, away from home for the first time, in a fraternity house, caught up in football games, pledge parties, trying to keep up with his studies and not miss any event. She felt she was staring at a photo of Brian smiling on the verge of death. She understood deep within herself that Brian had no internal check to say no. "He never missed a party." That might be his epitaph.
She told Dr. Amatelli about the picture, she had seen, the death head. Was it possible for a strong young man to be overthrown by exhaustion in a matter of weeks, she asked. "Could he have run down his resistance so far that he could go into a coma?" She refused to add "and die?"
"That's what happens when college students get exhausted; they get mono; their blood can't do the job. Their liver starts to fail; they get jaundiced, but I never heard of anyone going into a coma."
On Friday Kathleen redoubled her efforts to wake him up. "Brian! Your friends are all coming today." Nothing. All his college friends,home for the Thanksgiving weekend, filled the waiting room. The doctors were certain it wasn't contagious. "Two at a time," Dr. Amatelli said. "Act natural" Kathleen added.
The waiting room became the center of reunion for all the college freshmen. Each came in smiling, approached the bed and told Brian something personal, but they backed away as his body jerked convulsively and his throat emitted strange sounds. Kathleen was heartsick, but she thanked each one on Brian's behalf for coming to see him. What could she promise them? Come back tomorrow? He'll be awake then? When was this nightmare going to end? Why didn't the doctors do something? She and Dick had been keeping a vigil for five days. Brian's eyes remained shut. He did not respond to pins or voices. His brain showed no activity. If they unplugged him, would he die? Had the doctors given up hope? Were they just waiting for her to give up hope?
"Brain dead," the sign over his door read. She came in just as the nurse was going to unplug him. She ran down the hall looking for a doctor to stop her. She wanted to run to the doctors and make them look at him. He was moving, wasn't he? And mumbling incoherently? His heart was still beating, still circulating his blood, wasn't it? His color was good, though pale, wasn't it? He wasn't jaundiced. And his kidneys were still working. She dragged Doctor Ryan back to Brian's bed and saw his head--the death's head. "No brain activity," she heard Doctor Ryan say. They unplugged him, then all his movements ceased. She awoke in horror. It was a dream.
She went back to the hospital on Saturday with renewed determination. As long as he was still alive, there was hope. She would not give up hope. She would not fail Brian. She would not let them shut down his support. "He's only sleeping and dreaming, and he'll wake up soon and this'll just have been a nightmare," she told the doctor when he came in that day.
After the college students went back to school, Brian's room became quieter. There was only the family and a few of the in-town crowd visiting now. The nurses' station received a stream of calls asking about his condition. She played his music and kept up a conversation with him, telling him who had called and who had come and who had gone. "Keith and Rose left last night," she told him. "Brian, please wake up." She prayed the rosary out loud.
Several nuns, friends of her sister-in-law, Marjorie, a nun, stopped by. They were into healing prayer. They prayed over him. He made no sign. She looked at him and saw the death's head.
"He is beginning to look very thin," she told the nurse. "Isn't he getting any food in those tubes?"
"No, only basic salts and electrolytes, glucose and minerals. They'd have to put a feeding tube in his stomach," the nurse said.
"He is starving," she told Dick. "Should we ask to put a feeding tube in? Why haven't the doctors suggested it?" She knew. They expected him to die. They were letting him die.
His barber came by and gave him a haircut and shave. This service touched her. The barber believed with her that Brian was not going to die.
But during the next week, he became more and more gaunt. She didn't want the doctor to notice, so she told the nurse. "His hands are beginning to curl up. . . . And his feet." He was beginning to look scary, more and more like a skeleton.
"You can help by massaging them, to prevent them from curling."
She massaged and massaged. Then she noticed that his body was curling up too. "He's going into the fetal position," she pointed out to Dick. "Why don't the doctors do anything?" he asked. She knew why. They were waiting for him to die.
It was Wednesday of the third week when she saw how dry his sky was becoming. She told the nurse, who gave her some vaseline to put on his skin. She rubbed the oil into his skin, but his skin still looked dry, like it was shriveling. She went to the washroom to soak a washcloth with water. She applied the wet cloth to his forehead, dripping water across his face, oozing moisture onto his dry, cracked lips. Then she noticed a slight movement of his tongue. He made a lot of odd jerky movements, but this one seemed to have a purpose to it. She watched as his tongue slowly come out. He's thirsty! she thought. She squeezed the water into his mouth. His mouth closed. He swallowed the water. She did it again, squeezing more water out of the cloth. Again his mouth opened, his tongue caught the drops, retreated, the mouth closed, and he swallowed.
She ran out into the hall. "I know he's coming out of it! He's thirsty!" she called to the nurse. The nurse came into the room. "His tongue came out when I was moistening his lips. He's thirsty. He swallowed water."
The nurse didn't believe her. She had been seeing hopeful signs all along. But she went over to the bed. "Brian, if you can hear me, move your tongue." Kathleen peered at him. The nurse bent over him. His mouth was slightly ajar. They looked at his tongue. Nothing.
"I tell you, he moved his tongue. Brian, move your tongue. Show them you're alive. They think you're going to die, Brian. Show them you're alive. Move your tongue," Kathleen pleaded.
"Move your tongue, Brian," the nurse echoed. They both stared again. Nothing.
"He did move his tongue. He wanted water. He can move his tongue. . . . No one believes me. Everyone expects him to die." She began to sob.
"Move your tongue, Brian, if you can hear us," the nurse urged quietly, seeing the state Kathleen was in.
A faint movement seemed to take place in the area of the tongue. "See!" Kathleen cried.
The nurse wasn't sure. "Move it again, Brian." They both stared at his mouth. "Let us know that you can understand us." Another faint movement of the tongue occurred. "There! Did you see that?" Kathleen smiled triumphantly at the nurse, then turned back to Brian.
"Brian, we saw that. We know you hear us. We know you're conscious, Brian. We'll get you some water." Kathleen ran into the washroom with the rag and came back and squeezed more water into his mouth. He swallowed it.
"I remember smelling a tangerine," Brian was saying a few days later, in the slow, jerky, high pitched voice that he used until he could rediscover how to use his throat muscles to speak. "The night nurse was peeling a tangerine, and I was hungry and thirsty." They were all amazed. He had been conscious after all. " No one wished me a happy Thanksgiving." She thought he must have been dreaming. "We were so worried about you, Brian; how could we think of wishing you 'happy Thanksgiving'?" But she didn't want the doctors to say anything upsetting, so she put a sign over his bed: "Only say positive things!"
When he was well enough to get into a wheelchair, Dr. Amatelli took him to meet all the doctors. He was "the patient of the month." They all clapped when Brian came in. The doctor told them about his strange case. "We still don't know what caused his coma. It may have been a post-viral infection. Everything shut down except his automatic internal organs--kidneys, liver and heart, to allow the body to rebuild. However, he was sentient. He heard things and smelled things. But he had no conscious control of his body. He had to relearn coordination, directing his muscles. He couldn't even open his eyes when asked. The center of the brain where the motor coordination is had entirely shut down. When he came out of the coma, he had to relearn to talk, to walk."
"Why was there no brain activity ?" one of the doctors asked.
"We don't know. Perhaps he was as near dead as one can be and still remain alive."
Brian fully recovered and his life was changed. He became a priest and is happily at work in the fields of the Lord in Lincoln, Nebraska.